Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SAO PAULO, Brazil — Four years ago might seem like a long time, and for the U.S. Men’s National Team it has been exactly that.
With the U.S.’s World Cup opener against Ghana drawing closer, talk of the Round of 16 match between the two nations in 2010 is ramping up among fans and media. It is natural, of course, given that the hard-fought game required 30 minutes of extra time before Ghana prevailed, 2-1, to eliminate the Americans from the tournament in South Africa.
The U.S., however, is not focusing on the past or seeking vengeance ahead of its June 16 meeting with the Black Stars in Natal. That might not come as much of a surprise given that only six players from the Americans’ 2010 World Cup squad are currently on the one in Brazil — but even those who tasted defeat on that night in Rustenberg are not looking in the rearview mirror. No matter how big of a talking point it is to others.
“Not a word’s been spoken,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard — one of the holdovers from 2010 — on Friday. “We’ve said that all along. That was four years ago. It’s ancient history really the way football is looked at. This is a different team with a different mindset.”
Indeed, the U.S. of today has little resemblance to the one of four years ago. Jurgen Klinsmann is now the head coach and the players he has summoned are largely different and lack World Cup experience.
Veteran staples like Landon Donovan and Carlos Bocanegra have been replaced by talented young prospects like Julian Green and John Brooks. There is also now more responsibility on the shoulders of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, who were both youngsters playing in their first World Cup four years ago.
What has not changed much in the eyes of the U.S. is the way Ghana plays. The Americans are expecting another gritty affair in which they will have to be just as tough as they are watchful of the Ghanaians’ deadly speed on the counter.
“We know how physical they are, so we’re going to try and match that,” Howard said. “I’ve said it before: very rarely do we get outmatched physically, but this is a team who has that possibility of doing that. We’ll make sure that doesn’t happen and just being kind of clever with our positioning and making sure they don’t hit us in transition.”
Much has been made of how the U.S.’s back line will cope against Ghana stars like midfielder Kevin Prince-Boateng and striker Asamoah Gyan, both of whom scored in the 2010 encounter. But how Bradley, Altidore and captain Clint Dempsey fare in spearheading the U.S. attack is equally as important.
What type of tactical approach Klinsmann will opt for is still unknown, but he could go with the defend-and-counter style that was used in a 2-1 win vs. Nigeria in the Americans’ final pre-World Cup friendly in Jacksonville, Florida.
“They’re similar teams,” said midfielder Graham Zusi. “I think we can, through our good defensive work, catch them on counters. And our fitness level, as well, late in the game will prove vital like it did in Jacksonville — and just be very disciplined. They’re a very talented team, and I think that defensive shape is going to be big for us.”
The Americans’ World Cup opener is one they have labeled a virtual must-win in order to have a realistic shot of advancing from a challenging Group G that also includes Portugal and Germany.
That, not the result of four years ago, is the source of motivation driving the U.S. right now.
“We know it will be a tough game because they are a physical team. They have good players with (Michael) Essien, Boateng, Asamoah,” said midfielder Jermaine Jones. “But I say it before: we have a lot of respect of this team but we’re not scared. We try to go there and try to win this game.”